Exploring Korea’s true flavor
In Korea, there is no end to what people can see and experience, but trying Korean food is on the top of most visitor to-do lists! So let’s explore some of the dieshes that are sure to impress you with Korea’s true flavor!
Bibimbap: Rice with nutrient-packed flavor
Bibimbap, cooked rice mixed with vegetables, sautéed beef, and twigak (dried seaweed or vegetables fried in oil) is one of the definitive Korean dishes in the eyes of Koreans and also globally.There are three common beliefs about the origin of bibimbap. One theory is that it stemmed from the practice of mixing bap (cooked rice) with other dishes used for the ancestral rite of eumbok. Others say that bibimbap originated from mixing leftovers together as a midnight snack on Lunar New Year’s Eve. The last theory is that farmers out working the fields would each bring a portion of food to be mixed together for meals and divided out evenly.
Samgye-tang: Rejuvenate yourself during the sweltering summer
Samgye-tang is made by simmering a whole young chicken stuffed with ginseng, hedysarum root, jujubes, and sweet rice. Considered an energy-boosting dish best eaten on hot days, it is a classic Korean dish that has become popular among international diners as well. Many restaurants even add samgye-tang to their menus during the summer, an example of its popularity. Samgye-tang is well known to foreign visitors as well. Japanese author Murakami Ryu and Chinese film director Zhang Yimou have both given extensive praise to the dish.
Bulgogi: Sweet treats for special days
Bulgogi is prepared by marinating thin slices of beef before grilling them. In the past, the royal court and yangban (nobles) in Seoul called it neobiani, meaning “wide meat slices.” Traditional grilled meat dishes in Korea originated from a dish called maekjeok. Maek was the name of the northeast region of China, and is also a reference to Goguryeo, one of the earliest Korean kingdoms. Maekjeok is made with barbecued beef skewers, and according to folklore, evolved into present-day bulgogi through the introduction of grills, which made skewers obsolete.
Naengmyeon: Cool and refreshing noodle soup
Naengmyeon, cold buckwheat noodles, is considered a summer food, but that wasn’t always the case. It used to be enjoyed over a warm ondol (subfloor heating system) floor during the freezing winter temperatures. The broth was made with the brine of dongchimi (radish water kimchi) scooped out of a large jar half-buried in the ground during the winter. Although its origin remains unclear, based on the fact that buckwheat was introduced by the Mongol Empire during the Goryeo Dynasty, it is theorized that Koreans first began eating it around that time.
Kimchi: Over 1,500 years of fermented tradition
Kimchi is a fermented dish made with vegetables and a variety of seasoning ingredients. There are over three hundred varieties, but when it was first made prior to the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 57-668), it required a very simple recipe of salting and storing napa cabbage in a ceramic container for fermentation. In the old days, kimchi was an important source of vitamins in the winter, when fresh vegetables were unavailable. What was originally a simple salted pickle has now become a complex dish requiring assorted seasonings and varying according to climate, geographical conditions, local ingredients, methods of preparation, and preservation.
Sundubu-jjigae: The best source of protein
Sundubu starts out being made in the same manner as ordinary tofu; first boiling soymilk then coagulating it by adding brine. But it leaves out the later steps of draining and pressing the lumpy bean curds, giving it an easy-to-digest silky, light texture. In Chodang Maeul, a village famous for its sundubu, clean water from the East Sea is used as brine for thickening. It started when Chodang Heoyeop, a magistrate of Gangneung region during the mid-sixteenth century of Joseon Dynasty, discovered that the water from a spring in the front yard of his office tasted so fresh that he made tofu from the spring water and used sea water instead of brine. The name Chodang was then adopted from Heoyeop’s pen name.
Mandu: A dish dating back to the Goryeo Dynasty
Mandu (dumpling) is made by placing a filling of ground meat and vegetables onto a round, thinly rolled wrapper and sealing the edges. They were initially prepared for ancestral rites or banquets and enjoyed as a special dish for cold winter days. When discussing the origin of Korean dumplings, a famous folk song called “Ssanghwajeom” (dumpling shop) from the Goryeo Dynasty is frequently mentioned. The song describes how a group of Uighurs arrived and opened up dumpling shops, and also how the people of the day greatly enjoyed the dish. Some people refer to the song and joke that a Mongol who opened a dumpling shop in 1279 may have been the first foreign investor to live in Korea.
Galbi-jjim (braised short ribs) is made from the finest and most expensive cut of beef. As such, galbi-jjim is usually eaten on special occasions or holidays, when family members come together. Korean cooking consists of a large number of braised dishes that require considerable culinary skill. Galbi-jjim is one such dish, growing in popularity among international diners as well. When making galbi-jjim, the fat on the short ribs is carefully removed before braising. Carrots, ginkgo nuts and chestnuts are added, and finally pyogo (shitake mushroom) and egg garnish are sprinkled on top to complete the preparation process. Glazed with soy sauce, galbi-jjim not only has a rich taste, but a mouth-watering visual presentation.
Jeyuk-bokkeum: Plenty to share with while sizzling hot
Jeyuk-bokkeum (spicy stir-fried pork) is one of the best-known dishes cooked with gochu-jang. It is a stir-fried dish with thick slices of pork shoulder marinated in hot gochu-jang and minced ginger. Before the 1950s, it was reportedly made using only scallion, black pepper, and soy sauce, but the current form of gochu-jang-marinated jeyuk-bokkeum is believed to have appeared sometime afterwards. Because it is a hearty yet inexpensive meat option, young people on limited budgets favor jeyuk-bokkeum. Youngsters often list it as their favorite food, and many Korean mothers will talk about how their son can “finish a pound of jeyuk-bokkeum in one sitting.”
Pajeon: Perfect pair on a rainy day
Pajeon (green onion pancake) is a mixture of wheat flour batter and scallions, shallow-fried on a griddle. It goes well with chilled dongdongju (floating rice wine). Recently, restaurants specializing in pajeon have increased with the revived popularity of makgeolli (Korean rice wine). For some reason, people associate rain with pajeon. Some say it’s because the sound of raindrops hitting the ground or a window sill reminds people of the sizzle of spattering oil as the pajeon is fried. And, this theory may not be as far-fetched as you might think. According to an experiment conducted by a sound engineering lab, the two sounds have almost identical vibrations and frequencies.
Japchae: A classic dish on festive days
Japchae (glass noodles with sautéed vegetables) is made by boiling glass noodles, then draining and mixing them with stir-fried spinach, carrots, mushrooms, beef and onions. The term japchae is a combination of jap, meaning “mix, gather, or plentiful” and chae, meaning “vegetables.” Thus, it can be translated as “assorted mixed vegetables.” No Korean festivity is complete without japchae. It has long been perceived as a luxurious and elegant dish, and was always served on birthdays, weddings and 60th birthday celebrations. Japchae was first created in the 17th century when King Gwanghaegun hosted a palace banquet. It is recorded in the Gwanghaegun Ilgi (Daily Records of King Gwanghaegun’s Reign) that Yi Chung, one of the king’s favorites, had the habit of personally presenting unusual dishes to the king. Gwanghaegun relished these dishes so much that he would not start a meal until they arrived. Among these unique dishes was japchae, which the king favored over all the rest.
Gimbap: A full meal in a single roll
Gimbap is made by spreading white rice on a sheet of gim (dried laver), layering it with spinach, pickled radish, carrots, egg, and beef, and then rolling it up like sushi. It was in the 1960s and 70s that the gimbap we know today - rolled up into a cylindrical form - became popular. This rice-roll was the default picnic lunch for annual spring and autumn school outings. Many Koreans fondly remember eating the end pieces of the rolls while their mothers prepared gimbap on the morning of school field trips.
Tteok-bokki: The most popular snack
Originally, tteok-bokki was not a spicy dish. In the royal courts of Joseon, it was prepared by simmering beef, carrots, onions, pyogo (shitake mushroom) and other ingredients together with rice cakes in soy sauce. The colorful ingredients made it visually appealing as well as nutritional. It is believed that tteok-bokki seasoned with spicy gochu-jang paste first appeared in the 1950s and became widely popular later during the 1970s.
Dakgangjeong: Second to none and goes with any drink
Dakgangjeong is made by deep-frying chicken coated with flour. The fried chicken is then smothered in a sweet sauce that has been boiled down to a thick consistency. The dish, sold at Jungang Market, is unique in that it is served cold. The dakgangjeong is so famous because of its sweet and spicy taste, and despite being served cold, it is not soggy, but crisp and chewy.